Ageing and death are things that each one of us has to experience, bringing with them their own series of challenges. But if we anticipated these challenges beforehand, and not wait for fate to make decisions for us, we will be able to embrace old age with enthusiasm. This mentality will help reap the fruits of the youth’s labour. We contacted Dr. Dilhar Samaraweera, Consultant Physician at the Colombo South Teaching Hospital and the President of the Sri Lanka Geriatric Association, to obtain advice on how to face the great challenge that ‘silver age’ presents.
“Ageing is a lifelong and inevitable process. This includes progressive change in a person’s physical, mental as well as social structure”, explained Dr. Samaraweera.
“When we see our children growing up and experiencing the challenges of teenage and adulthood, we remember that we passed the same phases. We then realize that we are getting old,” he said further describing how we view ageing from the perspective of the society.
Close your eyes for a moment and picture an old person. How did you picture him or her? Chances are, the picture at the forefront of your brain was of a frail person, bent, may be holding a walking stick and strikingly not a happy picture. But does this have to be that way? Is that how you want to spend your days when you grow old? The main problem lies in how our society sees old age, explained Dr. Samaraweera.
The three stages of life
Our society has traditionally divided our lives into three stages. The first stage is from birth up to around twenty years. This is the period which is accepted as the learning, training and education period. At the end of this stage comes a crisis period where you have to face adulthood and all its impending decisions like going up the ladder in life, marriage and etc. This ‘crossover period’ from first to second period, though a challenge, is a sweet one. You actually look forward to these challenges.
Then the next stage in life, which is from around 20 to 50 years, is considered the most productive stage. A person contributes the most to his society and the family by way of his chosen profession, by raising kids, by holding leadership positions etc. At the end of this period is another transition period, where the challenges of retirement, children building their own nests and old age loom large. But unlike the first crossover, this isn’t anticipated because it’s generally accepted that a person’s productive years are now behind him.
The final stage of life, after around 55 years, is traditionally considered a period where a person is too frail to go outside and be a part of society. Unlike in many other cultures, the Sri Lankan culture promotes respect towards the elderly. But this has its own drawbacks. “Our older generation is protected too much that they are prohibited from venturing outside the houses ‘for their own protection”, underscored the doctor.
But is this the ideal approach that we should take to life? According to Dr. Samaraweera, in the modern world, rather than dividing life into specific stages and assigning definitive roles to each age group, life is taken as one big event which includes lifelong learning, working and security.
“Retirement gives a person the freedom to explore the unfulfilled dreams of his or her life. For an example, a doctor who was busy tending to patients will have spare time to learn playing a musical instrument that he always wanted to. A clerk who loved watching stage dramas, but couldn’t afford to do so due to family commitment, can use retirement to fulfill his heart’s desire,” stated the doctor.
Bridging the generation gap
Two terms that are vital when talking about ageing with dignity are ‘Interdependence’ and ‘Intergenerational solidarity’, according to Dr. Samaraweera. Inter dependence is when the older and the younger generations depend on each other, instead of it being a one-way street where the elders are dependent on the young to fulfill their needs. In this concept, the younger generation depends on the elders for wisdom and help in some areas like raising their youngsters, while older generation depends on the younger generation to improve the quality of life.
Inter generation solidarity is where the two generations respect each other and recognize their values. “Young people are quick to scorn the older generation for their ‘hana miti adahas’ or out of date ideas regarding the values, the way they view life etc. On the other hand, the older generation is quick to judge the young for their taste in fashion, music, use of modern technological devices, social media etc. If the two groups understand each other and respect their choices in life, they may be able to live with increased harmony.
“Elderly people value their independence as much as the youth. Therefore it’s important to let them enjoy life, travel, interact with the society, without restricting them out of fear for their health,” explained the doctor. “Always remember the fact that you are here because of the choices and the sacrifices the older generation made for you. In addition, remember that you yourself will get there one day, and if we shape the world now to treat the elderly as an important part of the society, giving them the due recognition, you will one day reap the benefits yourself,” he concluded.
Let’s talk about the specific challenges that the older generation face and how best to face them, in the next week’s issue.